Yesterday, we briefly touched on the budgetary and dietary disaster that is lunch food in DUMBO. Not the largest problem in this world, by a long shot, but also not the smallest? I guess that's debatable, but the point is, no one can live on Front Street Pizza alone. Or at least, you shouldn't.
So, failing "getting my shit together and bringing my own food," that leaves "the incredibly expensive but delicious and healthy-ish salad bar." There are lots of iterations of this — the Whole Foods cold bar being the established gold standard — but for our purposes, I'm thinking specifically of the $7.99 per pound salad gauntlet at Foragers, a grocery store that regularly sees fit to charge several dollars more for everyday items that are available for less money half a block away. Necessities, too, like beer and yogurt. Aaaaah, this is so stupid! I hate giving them business! It's a terrible vicious cycle. But when stuck in the midst of a terrible vicious cycle, we must learn, somehow, to settle for small victories. Small victories like shaving a dollar or two off the price of a plastic container full of vegetables. Let us explore this.
Obviously. If this is even a surprise to you, you might be beyond salad bar help. That said, there are a lot of dressing-laden booby traps to avoid, or at least, there are at Forager's. At the outset, among the baseline lettuce options (more on that later), there's usually a fully dressed caesar salad. Is this a joke? You're already starting off with like a $6 minimum. Fuck that. Also, at the end, the little to-go containers for the dressing you can ladle out are "coincidentally" placed weirdly far away, forcing the salad consumer to awkwardly get out of, then back into, the salad line if they want to keep the dressing separate (and thus free). Don't crack under this vague social pressure. Use the to-go containers.
Now, this may seem counterintuitive when putting together a meal that hypothetically resembles a salad, but at Forager's, it's best to skip the lettuce altogether. Why? Because the romaine they use is outrageously heavy. It just feels really mean and intentional. Curiously, there's no lighter "mixed greens" or "mesclun" alternative. If you're gonna weigh down your box (which, you know, you'll have to do at some point), don't waste your capital on middling romaine. Remember, every leaf is costing you pennies. Pennies!
Cheese is a pretty safe option in general, but at the fancy salad bar, blue cheese is king. And not just because it makes the other people in line look at you like you're some kind of classy European intellectual! No, it's also just a lot of flavor for not a lot of money. The tiniest of smatterings can work wonders.
Nowhere does it pay more to be a total dilettante than in the world of salad curation, as it is known to some (hopefully none). If you wanted an entire container of grain salad, you should have thought of that sooner. Go for tiny piles of a few things, or light sprinklings of a few more things. Nothing more ambitious.
Brussels sprouts and beets are a disaster, shredded carrots and edamame slightly less so. Obvious.
Beans are heavy to begin with and almost always in some kind of dressing. Nuts are a safer and equally valid option. They also pair well with (c)raisins, which are cost-effective and tasty in their own right.
Oh, didn't want to eat furtively, and standing up? You should have picked a different option. But really, this is more plausible than you think. The business model of most expensive salad bars is based on desperation and lack of other options, meaning that come lunchtime, the line is slow and long. If you must get heavy stuff like tofu cubes, broccoli, or pasta salad, sneak it while you wait. Forager's and Whole Foods can both handle the tiny economic hit, I promise.
Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.